The Patients' Bill of Rights: Republicans Count their Votes

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After a brief respite, the Patientsí Bill of Rights is back in the spotlight on Capitol Hill. Still stinging from the McCain Kennedy Edwards bill's triumph in the Senate, GOP leaders are scrambling for votes to defeat a version passing through the House (Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican, is spearheading the bill favored by Democrats). Meanwhile, insurance companies and trial lawyers across the country are biting their fingernails in anticipation. They may have to suffer a while longer; while many hoped the House would move quickly on the bill, behind-the-scenes maneuvers mean an actual vote may not take place before early next week. Meanwhile, President Bush has indicated he will veto the opposition's bills — but some observers wonder if he'll have the stomach to send away such a popular measure.

TIME congressional correspondent Douglas Waller spoke with Tuesday about the competing bills — and what Republicans hope to accomplish before the vote. Where does the patientsí bill of rights debate stand in the House?

Douglas Waller: The GOP leadership in the House began its serious vote-counting last night and itís continuing today. At this point, they donít have the votes to defeat the Norwood-Dingell-Gansky bill (which is similar to the McCain-Kennedy-Edwards bill that passed in the Senate). The Republicans are pushing the Fletcher bill, but at this point, they just donít have the numbers.

The leadership wants to get President Bush back in Washington — and heís due in tonight — to work the phones and lobby harder for Fletcher. GOP leaders had at one point talked about bringing the bill up for consideration beginning Thursday and allowing one day of debate before the vote. Now theyíre talking about delaying the procedure in order to give Bush some time to put in his calls Wednesday.

So the House may not get the bill until Friday (which is generally a short day; they finish up around 2 p.m.) and that would push the vote back to next week.

Is there some disagreement behind the delay in the House?

Itís interesting: On the Senate side, the GOP delayed voting to get their attack ads out on the airwaves, but in the end the ads didnít work. On the House side, the feeling is 180 degrees from that philosophy — the feeling is the longer the bill stays on the table, the longer the Democrats have to convince people of its merits. So many in the GOP want to get the vote out of the way as soon as possible.

At this point, it looks like the GOP leadership will have to make a decision Wednesday night or Thursday: Are we within striking distance on this, and should we delay to give the President lobbying time, or should we just go ahead and get this thing over with?

And the major points of contention remain the same?

Yeah, weíre still looking at two standout points of disagreement: The first is liability caps, how much a patient can sue for. The second is the question of venue for the lawsuits themselves. While the Norwood-Dingell-Gansky bill allows suits to be filed in state and federal courts, the Fletcher version allows only a tiny window into state courts.